When the biggest issue goes overlooked

If Americans consider the state of the economy the most pressing issue — and polls are clearly unanimous on this point — it’s quite likely the 2012 elections will be decided in part on developments in Europe.

This is an unsettling, and highly unusual, dynamic. But as Ezra Klein noted the other day, “For a country used to being in the driver’s seat, America is in a weird place right now. Over the next year, and perhaps over the next few years, the most important question for our economy, and thus the most important question for our political system and our upcoming elections, is what happens in Europe over the coming days and weeks.”

There’s no great mystery here. If there are three main powerhouses in the global economy — the United States, Europe, and East Asia — and a Eurozone financial crisis threatens to crash one of the three, the consequences everywhere would be severe. If European leaders somehow find a way to adequately address their crisis, a stronger and more sustained global recovery is more likely.

Given all of this, as much as we want to believe the state of our economy is in our hands, the “Euromess” will have a significant impact on what happens here in the near future — arguably more than any other economic issue.

So why is this the invisible issue in the Republican presidential race?

It could easily force the United States back into recession and become the issue on which the 2012 elections turn. But the national political press has all but ignored it, and none of the GOP’s Presidential hopefuls have been asked about it in any of their endless series of debates.

The European monetary union is on the verge of collapse. In the wake of 2008’s global financial crisis, several countries on the Euro have amassed crushing debt burdens and seen their economies stall or buckle. And now the severity of their problems, combined with political paralysis in the union’s more stable countries, threatens to bring the whole system down.

If that happens — and many analysts say it’s a question of when, not if — it will plunge all of Europe into financial crisis. But that will have far reaching consequences around the globe, including in the United States, and it hasn’t widely sunk in that it could break our meager recovery and weigh heavily on Presidential politics next year.

I checked the transcripts of the debates since Perry got in the race, and there’s been literally no discussion of the crisis in Europe. As near as I can tell, none of the candidates have said much of anything on the subject, regardless of its importance.

It’s probably not fair to blame the GOP candidates for this, at least not entirely. They’re not talking about the issue, but no one’s asking them to talk about it, either.

And why is it that the most pressing global issue, the one crisis that will help dictate the strength of our economy for quite a while, is entirely absent from the campaign? From the media’s perspective, I suspect it has something to do with how complicated the European crisis is. Campaign reporters tend to prefer stories that are easier to digest — “Romney flip-flops a lot” is easy to understand; the size and scope of the European bailout fund is not.

From the Republican candidates’ perspective, not only is this a complicated crisis they don’t understand, but it’s also a crisis that shifts the blame in unhelpful ways — they want to hold President Obama responsible for the economy, not a Eurozone financial mess that Obama isn’t in a position to fix.

Still, some Q&A on this front seems overdue. News organizations could just stick to the basics when asking the candidates: (1) Are you satisfied with the plan European leaders are pursuing, and if not, why not? (2) What would you do to handle the crisis if you were in office?